Rubber hose animation explained: examples and techniques.

Inkblot or rubber hose animation sacrificed detail and consistency for speed. Despite its visual limitations, it still came to define an era with its vibrant look and fast, furious feel. Find out more about the rubber hose animation style and see how it’s influenced the current crop of animated works.

Hand drawing figures on a storyboard.

What is rubber hose animation?

Rubber hose animation is the defining characteristic of the earliest inkblot cartoons which emerged during the mid-1920s. Because they made the leap from newspaper comic strips, they share a visual identity - think heavy use of black inks on white backgrounds and exaggerated facial expressions. As these comics made the move to animation, that defining characteristic was added - flailing rubber-hose limbs without joints. 


Other features of the characters used in inkblot cartoons include:


  • White gloves, purely so animators could depict characters’ hand movements in front of their black bodies

  • Black noses 

  • ‘Pie eyes’ - full black eyes with a white part sliced out


The most defining feature of the animation style was the use of rubber-hose arms and legs to accentuate character movement and emotion - whether human, animal or even inanimate. Characters and machines alike bounce around (usually in time to a jaunty jazz soundtrack) as each deliberate movement is expressed in stretching, squashing sequence.


The Fox Chase (1928) starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is one of the most expressive examples. Oswald struggles to stay on a horse as it cycles through various bow-legged, bandy movements. 


These rather surreal movements were the fullest expression of an art form whose first creators were still struggling to find their footing. Nonetheless the style is looked back on fondly and has been faithfully recreated in recent notable work like the Cuphead video games.

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History of rubber hose animation.

As hand-drawn animation became the norm in the United States during the 1920s, there wasn’t yet a large enough workforce to deal with the rigorous production methods.

The rubber hose animation style came at the time when animators were making tentative steps into a genre whose popularity was exploding faster than the frames they could produce to keep up.


Before animating was really a career choice, cartoonists dealing in the confines of comic strips were fascinated by the possibilities of bringing their still images to life. As they got to grips with the demands of the medium, the distinctive design choices they made were half by design - half out of necessity. 


Being in its infancy, the style also drew from surrealism and was quite meta in its approach. Each instalment of the Fleischer Brothers’ Out of the Inkwell series of shorts (1921-1926) began with a sequence where a hand drew the characters onto the page before they came to life.


The relatively simplistic style of the characters depicted in inkblot animation aided the speed of production - Walt Disney himself famously described the design of Mickey Mouse as little more than a timesaver:


“Mickey had to be simple. We had to push out seven hundred feet of film every two weeks…”


The rubber hose animation style is mostly credited to artist Bill Nolan, best known for working on Felix The Cat shorts and giving the character a new lease of life with the introduction of musical accompaniment - a few years before the “talkies” brought this era of animation to an end.


Like the Fleischer Brothers’ work showed, rubber hose animation rewrote the rules of reality. Felix’s tail doubled as a versatile tool - and he used it for everything from fighting fires as a hosepipe (The Smoke Scream, 1928) to cranking a car engine (Woos Whoopee, also 1928). 


Arguably the most widely viewed example of rubber hose animation is Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), credited as “A Walt Disney Comic by Ub Iwerks” and notably the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. From the very first shot which shows the squashing, stretching chimneys billowing smoke in time to the music, Steamboat Willie lends dynamic movement and freedom to almost any object it portrays.


The style fell mostly out of favour as Hollywood turned to the ‘talkies’ and Technicolor, with Walt Disney leading the charge towards a more realistic approach to the characters depicted on screen. This meant much less of the rubber-limbed surrealist movements and a focus on physics more geared towards real life.


However, rubber-hose animation remains a prised contribution to the art form. Indeed, recent productions in film, TV and even video games pay homage to the pioneering style. 


The villain from Steven Universe: The Film (2019), Spinel, is animated in rubber hose style, at odds with the rest of the setting around her. Her animated flexibility is a physical asset as she does battle with the good guys. As the film has musical numbers, she’s also shown moving in time with an updated version of the jazz style which punctuated traditional inkblot cartoons.


Animated shapes spelling a word.

An episode of US animated sitcom Futurama called ‘Reincarnation’ (2011) is split into three segments of different visual styles separate from its typical traditional cartoon drawing. One of these segments is done in the rubber-hose style, complete with white-gloved, pie-eyed characters and a steamboat’s steering wheel replacing that of the usual spaceship control panel.


Studio MDHR’s Cuphead (2017) is a video game whose entire visual identity draws from the inkblot style - and much of its surrealist humour too. The heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, are depicted as their names might indicate - teacups, with a cup handle for an ear and drinking straws in place of some hair. Cuphead is a fast-paced run-and-gun game interspersed with plane-flying missions and regular boss fights, including a final battle against the Devil. The game has sold six million copies to date and is now also a Netflix animation series - such is its striking visual impact.


How to draw and animate in a rubber hose style.

As Walt Disney said, efficiency was the key to animating inkblot cartoons. That meant characters formed from simple shapes and miles of rubbery limbs. 


When creating your rubber hose animation characters, try a few of the tips below.


  1. Inking purely in black and white would achieve an effect similar to the earliest look - although you can use a limited colour palette to bring some visual flair to the broader elements, a la Cuphead. 

  2. Use simple shapes for characters and borrow a pair of white gloves to go with the pie-eyed expressions for each. 

  3. Stick to smooth, soft strokes and avoid angularity - the roundness of the objects captured in inkblot cartoons is what gives them their larger-than-life sensibility.


Far from the mass-produced and highly stylised animations which followed, the ‘vintage’ look and feel comes simply from animators making their first steps in a relatively new medium. 


So, if you’re looking to animate a rubber hose cartoon, bear the following in mind.


  • Even when they’re standing still, characters should always be moving somehow. Whether swaying to the background music or circling through facial expressions, there’s no time to pause in Rubber Hose World.

  • Similarly, rubber hose animated characters don’t slow down for anything. It’s one sequence after another of fast, furious movement, so no easing in between frames.

  • Capture the old-timey effect of dust and scratches on the animation - a staple of 1930s celluloid - with effects software such as Adobe Premiere Pro.

Two artists discussing an image.

Rubber hose animation FAQs.

Who invented rubber hose?

One early pioneer of the rubber hose animation style was Bill Nolan. When working on Felix The Cat cartoons during the 1920s, he altered the design of the main character, giving Felix a rounder, smoother look. This not only helped animators to draught their work faster, but also meant the incorporation of the rubber-limbed look which gave the style its real impetus.


Why is rubber hose animation creepy?

Before Walt Disney pioneered a more realistic style of animation with fully trained animators at his disposal, the inkblot era was a creatively experimental phase as creators were still figuring out how the medium really worked. Hyper-articulate limbs, anthropomorphic objects and a consistent urgent tone all combined to create a distinctly unnatural look and feel. Not to mention the sometimes rather dark humour employed by its creators. 


Why is it called rubber hose?

A defining feature of characters depicted in rubber hose animation - aside from the pie eyes and white gloves - is how their arms, legs and even necks can bend, stretch and flex with no regard for anatomy or physics. Originally done as a time-saver for animating, it became the hallmark of cartoons produced in the USA during the 1920s and early 1930s.